As part of a national trend, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents recently approved outcomes-based metrics for allocating some new state monies to UW System colleges and universities. Two of the four items in the category “Enhance Contributions to the Workforce” are graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, and graduates in health-related disciplines. Because of this policy, all UW System schools have a major incentive to produce more graduates in these areas. We see the effects of this policy also influencing the debate about the future of UW-Stevens Point with respect to which majors and programs are best suited to address student needs as well as the state's economy.
This emphasis on STEM reflects a set of assumptions, which has become entrenched in recent years, about a supposedly declining STEM educational system and the economic disaster that awaits the nation as a result.
Tellingly, an economic trend that has developed parallel to this ostensible STEM crisis is the increasing income and wealth inequality in the U.S. Although much has been made of the top 1 percent, the more relevant story is that of the top 20 percent of Americans, who have done extremely well in comparison to the vast majority. And I suggest that a careful examination of the frequently repeated claims of inadequate STEM education and looming employment shortages is an important part of this larger story of growing economic inequality.
The first problem we encounter in this analysis, however, is the lack of an official definition of STEM. The federal government’s Standard Occupational Classification system defines STEM jobs as occupations in the following fields: life and physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, information technology, social sciences, architecture and health care. This is an extremely broad definition, as it includes health care professions and social scientists, as well as individuals employed in related management and sales positions. But even if we stretch the definition of STEM this far, only approximately 13 percent of all jobs in the U.S. are STEM jobs, half of which are in health care. Note: The new UW policy does not consider social science graduates as STEM and counts health care graduates separately from STEM graduates.
What about all the labor shortages we hear so much about today? Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that a large majority of college graduates in STEM majors do not work in STEM fields, which is hardly indicative of labor shortages. Research has also found that only one-third of technology workers have a bachelor's degree in a STEM field, another third do not possess any four-year degree, and most technology workers are in jobs that seemingly do not require a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, the tech industry has laid off more workers than the total number of H-1B visas it has received for guest workers in recent years, completely undercutting any claims of a real labor shortage in this sector.
Declarations of shortages are often based on anecdotes provided by employers, who generally define shortage as a situation in which they are unable to find a sufficient number of qualified employees for particular jobs. However, economists typically define a labor shortage as when employers cannot find sufficient employees for a given position who are “qualified, available and willing to do that job.” So for any supposed shortage, we must ask: How many individuals in the recruiting area possess the credentials for the job? And, what is the wage offered? Basic economics tells us that if wages were higher for many types of jobs, qualified applicant pools would likely increase.
To be sure, demand for some STEM-related jobs, particularly in health care, certainly appears strong. For example, registered nurses command a median salary of $64,000 in Wisconsin, with a projected growth rate of 0.9 percent, exceeding the state’s overall projected growth rate of 0.6 percent. Also, as anyone seeking treatment can easily attest, shortages of mental health professionals regionally and nationally are well established. However, using the broad definition of STEM (including health care), similar to the nation as a whole only about 12.5 percent of all jobs in Wisconsin in 2024 are projected to be STEM jobs.
Further, when discussing engineering and computer-related occupations, we must specify which particular jobs we are talking about because of the very different prospects within these large fields. Still, data for the engineering job market in Wisconsin do not look especially encouraging. For example, the “Architecture and Engineering” occupation category is projected to grow by 0.5 percent in Wisconsin, with a projected 55,000 jobs by 2024.
Rates of growth, when considered in isolation, of course, can be quite misleading. The “Computer and Mathematics” category is expected to grow by 1.5 percent, higher than total growth, and this sector is projected to employ roughly 85,000 by 2024. While the “Education, Training, and Library” sector is projected to grow by just 0.3 percent, it is far bigger, and expected to employ over 269,000 Wisconsinites by 2024. This number is greater than the total number of projected health care workers, and almost twice the total number of workers in the “Architecture and Engineering” and “Computer and Mathematics” sectors combined.
The best available evidence regarding the skills necessary for 21st century employment paints a very different picture than the STEM-crisis advocates suggest. Surveys of employers reveal the most sought-after skills for today’s job market are traits like problem solving; the ability to work in a team, communications skills including writing, reading comprehension and active listening; time management; and leadership. These skills can be developed in many college majors, but communications skills are more directly linked to writing-intensive majors in the humanities and social sciences. Contrary to conventional wisdom, explicitly math- and computer-oriented skills typically rank lower in these surveys.
While the skills mentioned above are in high demand, the fundamental problem is that the economy is simply not producing enough middle-class jobs. Rather than making Wisconsin unique, the state’s economy looks very similar to the nation’s — one in which most jobs are lower-wage, service-sector jobs. Blaming the education system for this, and then proposing that STEM education is the answer, is simply not supported by any reasonable interpretation of current and future jobs data. Moreover, this approach intentionally deflects attention away from the concrete issues of wages and jobs markets, and has enabled an attack on non-STEM fields as irrelevant to our global economy.
For decades, the deck has been increasingly stacked in favor of employers. From the offshoring of jobs, to a stagnant minimum wage, to the significant decline in labor union membership, to the ever-increasing cost of health care, to the erosion of workplace retirement plans, to abuses of the H-1B visa program, to the increasing use of non-compete agreements, which now cover roughly 20 percent of the work force, employees have less economic security today than at any time in our modern history. Combined with state disinvestment in higher education and a general hostility to raising taxes, and we have a recipe for growing inequality.
The manufactured STEM crisis is yet another piece of the growing inequality puzzle. All of this data, which is easily accessible, must be carefully examined rather than accepting at face value the frequently repeated claims of a STEM crisis in both education and employment.
Neil Kraus is professor and chair of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Political Science Department. He is the author of two books and several articles, including, most recently, "Majoritarian Cities: Policy Making and Inequality in Urban Politics."
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